A Beginner’s Guide to Information Architecture for UX Designers

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A Beginner’s Guide to Information Architecture for UX Designers

If you want to build a great house, the person to call is the architect. We all know this, but architecture can be applied not only to traditional buildings but also information space. Similar to buildings, information should be structured with a solid foundation. Understanding the basic principles of good information architecture is essential for any designer who creates products for people.

In this article, we’ll discuss what Information Architecture (IA) really is and what role IA has in UX design process.

What is Information Architecture?

People often use the words “Information Architecture” to mean the menus on websites or in apps, but that’s not really correct. While menus are a part of IA, they’re really only one part of it.

Information architecture is all about organization of information in a clear and logical way. Such organization follows a clear purpose — helping users navigate complex sets of information.

Information Architecture is the creation of a structure for a website, app, or other products, that allows users to understand where they are — and where the information they want is — in relation to their current position.

The value of Information Architecture

We all know how important it is to produce content that users will find valuable, but what’s equally important is to make that content findable.

Time is the most precious resource people have. We live in a world where people expect to find a solution to their problems with the least amount of effort. When the process of finding information is too complicated or too slow, there’s a risk that people will simply abandon it. And when people abandon an app or a website, it’s more difficult to bring them back.

Bad Information Architecture is like a maze — it forces users to complete a journey to find the required information. When users can’t find what they are looking for right from the start there’s a huge possibility that people will abandon a product.

On the other hand, having a clear Information Architecture that helps users easily complete their tasks means they will find a product more usable. Good IA makes it possible for a user to focus on their tasks, not on finding their way around.

Common methodologies

While IA has roots in numerous fields and methodologies, it’s important to focus on two methodologies at the core of IA — library science and cognitive psychology.

Library science

Libraries have always been associated with the practice of information science. Library science is the study of how to categorize and catalog information resources. Both the art of categorizing (defining things by similarity) and cataloging (creating metadata and assigning it to content in order to find it again in the future) are extremely valuable for IA.

The history of IA goes as far into the past as ancient Egypt. Librarians in the library of Alexandria listed the content of the library on a 120-scroll bibliography. Image credits: ancient-origins.net

Cognitive psychology

Cognitive psychology is the study of how our minds work —  what mental activities take place in our brain and what different factors influence our attention. Most UI/UX design rules we have today have roots in cognitive psychology. Information Architecture uses some elements of cognitive psychology to define the way information should be structured. Here are a few key elements of cognitive psychology that are most valuable for IA:

  • Gestalt principles: Gestalt principles explore users’ visual perception of elements in relation to each other. They show how people tend to unify visual elements into groups according to their similarity, continuity, or closure.
  • Mental models: Mental models are assumptions people have in their minds before they interact with an app or website. Information is easier to discover when it’s in a place that matches the user’s expectations of where it should be. For example, when a user is looking for contact information, the first thing they’re going to look for is a page, link, or section that says “Contact Us” or “Contact.”
  • Cognitive load: Cognitive load is the amount of information that a person can process at any given moment. When architects consider a user’s cognitive load, it helps them prevent the user from being overloaded with too much information all at once.
  • Recognition patterns: People visiting a website or using a mobile app expect to see certain features associated with a definite kind of product. Designers apply various recognition patterns to make the interaction familiar.
  • Visual Hierarchy: Visual hierarchy is directly related to content readability. One of the essential points to consider for architects is scanning patterns — before reading a page, people scan it to get a sense of interest. The most common scanning patterns are F and Z patterns.

The eight principles of Information Architecture

There are lots of things which should be taken into account when building the Information Architecture for a digital product. In an attempt to summarize the most critical requirements for IA, Dan Brown created eight principles that can be used as a reference:

  1. Principle of objects: Content should be treated as a living, breathing thing with a lifecycle, behaviors, and attributes. Different content has different attributes and behaviors. An architect should start every project by identifying the kinds of content that will be present.
  2. Principle of choices: It’s important to create pages that offer meaningful choices to users. At the same time, the range of available choices available for the user should be focused on a particular task. According to the book “The Paradox of Choice” by  Barry Schwartz, too many choices can overwhelm a user and negatively affect their experience using a product. More options mean more cognitive effort, and more effort can sometimes mean more anxiety.
  3. Principle of disclosure: Show just enough information to help people understand what kinds of information they’ll find as they dig deeper. By limiting the information they see at any one time, you allow your user to better absorb what they’re seeing. If users are interested in the information, they can dive deep into it by moving from preview to detailed information.
  4. Principle of exemplars: Show examples of content when describing the content of the categories. For example, when browsing categories on eBay, each category is represented with an image of a product that falls into that category. This makes it easy for users to identify the category.
  5. Principle of front doors: Assume at least half of the website’s visitors will come through some page other than the homepage. That means that every page should include some basic information so they know where they are. It also means every page should include at least top-level navigation so users will know what they can do next.
  6. Principle of multiple classification: Multiple classification means that there should be different ways for your users to browse the content on your site. Different people are likely to use different methods for finding the information on your site. For example, some users may use search function to find the content while others may want to explore through browsing.
  7. Principle of focused navigation: Focused navigation means that navigational menus should not be defined by where they appear, but rather by what they contain.
  8. Principle of growth: Assume the content on the website will grow. The amount of content you have on a site today may be only a small fraction of what you’ll have tomorrow, next week, or next year. Make sure the website is scalable.

These principles are a great place to start when learning what it takes to create a solid Information Architecture for a project. While these principles are tailored to creating IA for a website, it’s possible to adapt them to other digital or even non-digital products.

The role of Information Architecture in design

While IA isn’t really visible to end users, it presents a backbone of design. Navigation and visual design are built based on the information architecture.

 

Information architecture is the foundation for efficient design. Even the most powerful UI design can easily fail without appropriate IA. Illustration by Jesse James Garrett / www.jjg.net/ia/

What information architects do

Information architects work to create usable and findable content structures out of complex sets of data and information; essentially, structuring content so it’s easy for users to find what they are looking for. For any new project, the information architect identifies the changes that need to be made and creates a plan to make them happen. The more content a site/app has, the more critical its organization becomes, and the more significant the role of IA in the UX design process.

Illustration by Murray Thompson

As part of a UX project team, an information architect can be involved in a variety of activities. Common activities include research, hierarchy and navigation creation, labelling, wireframing, and taxonomies.

Research

Researching what users need and want is one of the most important steps in creating an effective Information Architecture. Architects need to have a firm understanding of how users access the information on a site or in an app. Through research, information architects are able to learn what mental models users have when they use a product. Once architects know that, they’ll be able to tailor an Information Architecture to best meet user’s needs.

Knowing the users, their goals, and information-seeking behaviors is the key to effective IA. Image credit: Adobe/Laura Klein

There are a number of ways to go about researching user needs. Often, an IA will take an active part in user interviews or card sorting, where the IA can hear user expectations directly from them or see how prospective users would categorize a variety of information groups. IAs also need access to the results of usability tests to see if users are able to navigate efficiently.

Conducting user interviews is a great way to ask users how they use products and listen for what vocabulary and terminology they use.
Card sorting is a simple way to figure out how best to group and organize your content based on user input. One of our reasons why information architects like card sorting is the clarity of patterns that typically emerges. Image credit: Fostermilo / www.fostermilo.com

Content inventory and audit

Information architects should have a good understanding of the range of content and functionality to be supported by the structure. Content inventory and audits help architects achieve such understanding. A content inventory typically appears as a spreadsheet, listing out each page on a website or in an app, while a content audit gives an information architect information on how useful, accurate, and effective the content is.

An example of a spreadsheet, listing every page on a website or in an app.

Creating hierarchy and navigation

Hierarchy and navigation are two essential components of any digital product. The first component defines the structure of content, while the second involves the ways users move through it.

The information architect is the key person responsible for determining how information on a website or app is displayed and accessed. In order to create a hierarchy, the IA needs to consider both what the user expects to see (based on research) as well as how the business wants to show the information (based on project requirements). The deliverable that’s commonly associated with this activity is a sitemap, which illustrates the hierarchy of content across a website.

A sitemap helps visually denote how different pages and content relate to one another. Image credit: Behance / Anton Suprunenko

Labeling

Not only should information be properly organized, it should also be properly labeled to best suit the needs of the end user. Labels play a significant role in whether users are able to find information. For example, a page that contains information about a company is going to be most easily found if it’ll be labeled “About” rather than “General Information.”

Wireframing

Information architects create wireframes to demonstrate the hierarchy of information. Based on information gathered during research and hierarchy creation, an architect can sketch out screens in order to demonstrate what content on a page is supposed to be there and how it’ll be arranged. Usually, wireframes created by architects are utility-only, with a limited number of graphic elements. Such wireframes will be used to guide the team on the development of the project.

Putting content into wireframes gives information architects a good sense of how the content is arranged and how well a UI achieves projects goals. Image credit: Speckyboy / speckyboy.com

Taxonomies

Taxonomies help organize and classify information and features based on similarities and differences of the concepts behind them. This may appear as categories within a news site, sections within a corporate site, or metadata tags within a ecommerce site. IAs choose taxonomies for a website or app based on the mental model of their target audience — how people group similar types of content or pieces of information together.

Set and depth in a product taxonomy. Image credits: Boxesandarrows / boxesandarrows.com

Data modeling

Information architects often act as a bridge between the design and engineering teams on a project. IAs need to make sure that the visual design proposed by the design team is relevant to the data model created by the engineering team.

What’s the difference between IA and UX?

After reading everything written above, you may wonder: “Isn’t IA the same as UX design?” The short answer is no. While the two are closely connected, they are not the same.

To understand the difference between the two, it’s important to remember what UX design is. User Experience is the way a person feels about using a product, system, or service and this includes a person’s perceptions of practical aspects such as utility, ease of use, and efficiency of the system. It’s clear UX design means much more than structuring content. At the same time, good Information Architecture is a foundation of efficient user experience. User Experience takes Information Architecture as its foundation and brings it to the next level. That’s why every good UX Designer is also a competent information architect.

Information Architecture comprises only a small a part of a user’s overall experience. UX designers focus on factors that influence users’ behaviour and actions such as emotion and psychology, while the IA experts stay focused on the user’s goals. Image credit: Scorch / scorchagency.com

Conclusion

Content is the heart of every app or website, and it should be taken seriously from the very start of a project. Good Information Architecture is a foundation of efficient user experience because well-organized, well-structured content makes a product easier to use for your users.

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